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Why Designers Need To Stop Feeling Sorry For Africa

Taking a patronizing approach to investing in Africa undermines the continent’s people and entrepreneurial promise, argue Jens Martin Skibsted and Rasmus Bech Hansen.

Earlier this year, the Cooper-Hewitt wrapped up "Design with the Other 90%: Cities," the second in a series of exhibitions intended to demonstrate how design can address the world’s most critical issues. This time around, the focus was on the challenges created by rapid urban growth in informal settlements. Some highlights were Digital Drum in Kampala, Uganda, a solar-powered information access point made from two durable, low-cost oil drums welded together, rugged keyboards, solar panels, and low-power tablets; a large-scale oven that uses trash as fuel to power a communal cooking facility in Kibera, Nairobi; and M-Pesa, a money-transfer service that enables urban migrants in Kenya to send money back to their villages via a mobile device.

The designers represented were local. But locals aren’t leading the pack when it comes to designing products for the bottom of the pyramid. Examples of Western efforts to care for the other 90% are many: Social entrepreneurship has grown into a full-fledged program at Harvard, Forbes started a list of the top 30 social entrepreneurs last year, and a host of major design studios have established nonprofit initiatives, including IDEO and Fuseproject. The latter designed MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte’s $100 laptop, with the goal of creating an educational project for poor schoolchildren, rather than a cheap laptop for the masses.

Unicef’s Digital Drum

It is no wonder that these projects have gained massive interest, since bottom-of-the-pyramid markets—those in the lowest global income band (with average household incomes below $1,500 a year)—provide a tantalizing market opportunity. In his book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, the Wharton Business School professor C. K. Prahalad argues that businesses can combat poverty and turn a profit at the same time.

But the road to hell may well be paved with good intentions. There clearly is a bottom-of-the-pyramid market, but linking it to "aid culture"—a non-market-driven-culture—detracts from the entrepreneurial opportunity. And correlating hunger, AIDS, malaria, poverty, and illiteracy with Africa perpetuates a stereotype that is far from the optimistic, go-get-it-attitude and ambition that we’ve encountered when traveling in Africa. Take, for instance, the title of this Harvard report: "HIV/AIDS and Business in Africa and Asia: A Guide to Partnerships."

Obviously, HIV/AIDS is an issue to be addressed, but confusing and pairing regions with issues make them synonymous in the public eye. How does "Obesity/Diabetes and Business in North America: A Guide to Partnerships" sound? To us, it sounds funny, but it doesn’t sound conducive to business. How would American businesses react to foreign customers who expressed pity for them at large? I bet that seeing foreign news headlines like "Give America a Chance: Support the Fat and Illiterate" would get tiring after a while. That is what Africans experience over and over again—plus foreign-media-dominated news about Africa to the outside world.

There are many exceptions, of course. But a disappointingly big part of them share the patronizing and generalist perspectives on Africa. One of us watched William Kamkwamba, a young Malawian who built windmills to power his parts of his village, speak at a TED conference in Arusha, Tanzania, in 2007. What was so remarkable about him was his genuinely humble attitude, resisting moderator Chris Anderson’s prompts to elaborate on his own accomplishments. "I just did it" was Kamkwamba’s typical response. He is, by any standard, a great guy, but his story is now woven into this other narrative of Africa—the patronizing Western assumption that Africans are up against insurmountable odds and ethnological challenges.

What we must recognize is that Africa is the next and last continent of incredible growth. Companies that don’t have a foothold there already are serious laggards. Today, the number of consumers in Nigeria is about the same size as the number of consumers in Russia. In 50 years, there will be four Nigerian consumers for every Russian one. The population increase in Africa over the next 20 years is equal to the number of people currently living in the European Union. This means that the number of potential customers in Sub-Saharan Africa alone will increase by almost 500 million people within the next 20 years. The number of Africans will surpass the number of Chinese in 2025. In 50 years, there will be two Africans for every person living in China. Then, the most populous 10 countries are expected be as follows, with three African countries among the top 10:

  1. India – 1,551 million
  2. China - 941
  3. Nigeria - 730
  4. United States of America – 478
  5. United Republic of Tanzania - 316
  6. Pakistan - 261
  7. Indonesia - 254
  8. Democratic Republic of the Congo - 212
  9. Philippines - 178
  10. Brazil – 177*

These figures are just population growth, but when that is coupled with the already strong economic growth in that region, the opportunity is startling. Over the next five years, the economies of Sub-Saharan Africa are expected to grow faster than the world economy in general, twice as fast as the G7, and three times faster than the economies within the EU. Over the next 10 years, the rise in purchasing power in S.S.A. countries will be equal to the creation of a new market the current size of France’s economy. (France is currently the world’s fifth-largest economy.)**

What can you do? Obviously, that very much depends on what industry you’re in, but regardless of your business, you can start by treating that market with respect.

  • Don’t believe what you hear in Western media. Today, international news is controlled by geopolitically dominant nations along an East-West axis (e.g., CNN/BBC vs. Al Jazeera/CCTV. There is a pressing need for genuinely new voices. What Al Jazeera has done for the Middle East, giving the region a fresh, young, progressive voice, needs to be done for Africa. We should encourage the North-South to produce their own stories.
  • Do some research within your field and assess African needs. For example, fast-moving consumer goods are increasingly being adapted to the African palate, rather than replicating what’s available in the West.
  • Recognize that it is not a one-way street. There might be export opportunities as well as import opportunities. Go to South Africa, Ghana, Senegal, or Nigeria, and you’ll see fashions so gorgeous you will not know what hit you. Check out Ozwald Boateng, Adama Paris, and Jewel By Lisa, to name a few.

Build your own brand loyalty and shape industry structure before competitors become established. Look at the competition. For example, telecom markets are saturated with handheld devices, and competition within that area is high, whereas there’s a lack of competitive access to electricity and water and comparable infrastructural necessities.

Finally, we suggest you engage Africans with the same entrepreneurial spirit that you would approach any other great opportunity. Africa is a significant growth market that no business can afford to ignore. Many of the consumer-product companies that were quick to build a presence in Africa have already established successful, profitable businesses.

Written by Jens Martin Skibsted and Rasmus Bech Hansen.

Rasmus Bech Hansen is London-based strategy director at Venturethree, a global brand consultancy. He writes on how brands can do well by doing good and has helped to relaunch the United Nations Global Compact brand, the world’s most successful CSR initiative.

Image: Lucian Coman/Shutterstock

*Population growth is based on World Population Prospects, 2010 edition, UNPD (medium variant). Data was collected or generated by .

** The GDP figures are based on the latest forecast by IMF. Special thanks go to Dalberg’s Nneka Eze and Hans Uldall-Poulsen.

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  • Tom Rielly

    Re: William Kamkwamba you write: "He is, by any standard, a great guy, but his story is now woven into this other narrative of Africa--the patronizing Western assumption that Africans are up against insurmountable odds and ethnological challenges."As William's mentor for the last five years, I respectfully disagree about his narrative. A more accurate characterization would be Africans can overcome (nearly) insurmountable odds themselves through their own endeavors. Five years later WK is thriving as a sophomore at Dartmouth College in the states, and then plans to return to Malawi to start a company that services the water and power needs of the rural poor. He's written two books, one for children, which have succeeded. He's sent his family and friends to school so they would graduate from high school. I've never met anyone more in control of his story.

  • Anton

    Hi Jens and Rasmus

    Thanks for sharing your insights. To echo some of the comments here, your view is encouraging in terms of respect and the restoration of dignity for the people, but on the other hand the issue is not so clear cut that one can generalize about what must be one of the most diverse population groups on earth with over 1 billion people, 54 (recognised) countries and extremes that range from dire poverty and disease to extreme wealth and dictatorship. I cannot begin to start on the range of different cultures and languages that would make those of the Americas and Europe combined look like a few tribes with a smattering of obscure dialects. 

    What is most concerning is your obvious view of some of the few progressive countries in Africa as potential markets and little more. That goes against any sense of returning dignity to people. commerce is important to a country's growth but if we are not to heed the lessons from the Western models of commercialism which has lead to so much upheaval in terms of debt, failing financial institutions, unrealisitic aspirations, dependency on oil and gas and environmental upheaval and so on it becomes clear that the West is bound to simply transfer these very real issues onto African countries and make a profit from it. the truth is much of Africa's ills are as a direct result of Western influence for profit. 

    I am against hand outs and much of the Western aid system which is self serving and patronising. But aid is very necessary where it is progressive and helps Africans on the right path in terms of health, agriculture, sustainability, conservation and, most importantly, education. 

    You said it best: "Africa is the next and last continent of Incredible growth." it really is our last chance to prove we have any dignity as a human race. 

    (I hope I can qualify my opinions having been born, lived and travelled extensively in Africa for over 34 years working as an advertiser, travel writer, photographer and designer)

  • Clara

     Hi Anton,

    I was born in Namibia and have worked in Cape Town as well as Windhoek (also in the Advertising industry). Having also traveled extensively on this beautiful continent, I find the typical 'westerns' approach to Africa 'as a country' extremely annoying. The more people I speak to and the more cultures I come across, the more I realize I am definitely not the only one.

    I was thus going to write a similar response to yours but I guess you beat me to it. I just thought I'd thank you for raising this point.   

  • Justin

    I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Africa and every time I leave a slum, I
    can’t help but marvel about how truly innovative and ingenious our
    African brothers and sisters really are. From toys made from trash to
    home-made water-purification units; the poor and marginalized people of
    this world deserve much more credit than we often give them. And yet, it
    would be really easy to take a picture of one of these brilliant
    African’s and make him/her look desperate.

    Here’s my hope: what if the world began to view the poor as
    innovators, entrepreneurs, and future leaders – this perspective swings
    the dignity pendulum back to the complete opposite side and paints an
    entirely different picture of the reality of our world’s poor. This is
    where we need to be, and I believe that by working together (especially
    as designers) this could be reality. So thanks to a blog title that got
    me all riled up, I felt compelled to write and share about a shift in
    perspective. At least it’s something for us all to think about.

    Shame on us for stealing one of the few assets they may have left: dignity.

  • moladi

    Innovation in Africa is at the BoP - Innovation in the "Developed" countries is at the top of the pyramid - Africa needs food and shelter and work - Maslow's hierarchy of needs - We focus on training the unemployed to build for the homeless - Creating skills and providing shelter for the homeless and classrooms for the children - 
    Fight poverty through housing-Voice Of Africa @moladi

  • Imraan Osman

    I'm happy to hear someone speaking of the patronising way we westerners treat Africans. Even if you see it as a market for profit, a bottomless pot for aid, or a hopeless case, you see it not as it really is. From one angle. Please let's stop this top down, condescending approach. We are all Africans.

  • Israel Kloss

    This article is party accurate. Partly inaccurate. First off,
     “Give America a Chance: Support the Fat and Illiterate” is accurate and isn't a bad idea, really. 

    Tanzania and Nigeria are not all of Africa. Africa is not a country. It's a continent and to call your own bluff in this article and all you have to reference about the *rest* of African countries is Hans Rosling's Gapminder (also from TED) ... and take a look at the bottom of the graph-- Mostly Africa (See

    If companies want to get rich off Africa, Tanzania and Nigeria are the countries to be looking at. 

    But if you want to leave an impact on lives  for decades beyond your grave (and even business beyond your grave) and if you want to be remembered for more than leaving us a fat corporate balance sheet may I recommend looking at How To Change the World by David Bornstein (http://davidbornstein.wordpres... 

    Every corporate social responsibility agent worldwide should read that book for methods of "doing good while doing well." 

    I am not affiliated with David Bornstein, just impressed with and inspired by the lives of the people he covers in that book. 

  • Ade

    Thank you for your article, as an African and a person in design it really disappoints me to see my people treated as pity cases, make you wonder whose interest is it really serving, those of Africa or those wanting to make themselves feel a bit better.

    Thanx, Ade

  • Leslie Tita

    Great article, touches the point but as you would have realized though your intentions where good while writing this article.

    Making mistakes such as even innocently refering to Africa as a country, destroys all the article's credibility.

    Sure it was an honest mistake but given that you are addressing the very same issue of Africa misrepresentation, it is expected that you to do your homework.
    Great article anyway.

  • Cliff Kuang

    And for what it's worth, I will say that authors have thought tremendously hard about what they're writing. It's not fair to them for a subhed to have caused people to dismiss the whole thing. The error is mine.

  • PWood

    This is an increasingly old and increasingly frustrating misdirected critique on foreign aid and ignorant media rhetoric (like this article). Stop calling it Africa, stop calling Africa a country, and stop persecuting pro-bono designers for a few bad designs and a bunch of sensationalized blog awards needed to fill fastcoreoflot white space.
    We have already read how $100 laptops were a bust.  There are many other success stories that come from the inter-collaboration of designers and locals all over African countries/cities/vilages.  Why should designers stop working in countries in Africa?  Which US design organizations are making millions off the BOP?  How is working in African countries paving a road to hell?   Annnnnd .... "Companies that don’t have a foothold there already are serious laggards."!!! Seriously!!! These "companies" are for the most part the ones taking advantage of "africa" NOT designers. Write an article on all of the huge companies in China Europe and the US who have all the major contracts for development projects and the nonprofits like IDE who are doing sensational entrepreneurial work in poor isolated communities.     

  • S Mcknight

    Africa is the land of the twenty first century. Thanks for the interesting and thought provoking material.

  • Dillion

    I wonder where this country called Africa is, coz last time i checked i lived in a continent called Africa.... hmmm. Thanks white folks for once again telling us something new... 

    This is what pisses me of. Get a map. 
    Africa is not a country, its a continent full of minerals which your countries rob... Full of great ideas and great individuals who are very innovative and you all put down coz u feel u better than us... 

    Dillion S. PhiriClaremont
    Cape Town
    South Africa (Country)
    Africa (Continent)

  • Olaotan

     Hi, I think we should give the writer a break and GET THE I am sure WE ARE SURE he knows Africa is a continent and not a country.
    Its unfair to malign the article especially as its been pointed out by someone already.
    We should try being forced to listen to a song we hate repeatedly and tell me some of the lyrics wouldn't get stuck, doesn't mean we like it. It's an absent minded mistake and everyone is starting to sound like bullies looking for the jugular.

    Olaotan Oladitan

    Proudly Nigerian

    Proudly African

  • Luakri

    Africa is continent and it is not a country. 

    Yes it also pisses me of. 

    But I am a Angolan White/Born/Raised African and I found very racist your comment. 

    I wonder if Obama knows that africa is a continent...

    Instead of thinking is the white's blame for everything you should point the finger to the word's big companies, corporations and leaders, and the media. They are the one's to blame, and they are from all races. 

    I just fed up that i'm blamed for everything because of my skin color. 


  • agnes sokol ✰

    "TAKING A PATRONIZING APPROACH TO INVESTING IN COUNTRIES SUCH AS AFRICA" ~Hmmm didn't realize that africa was a country...

  • Cliff Kuang

    The error was mine, and occurred in the editing process. It's now been corrected. Thanks for reading.

  • SR

    I inferred from this article that "Africa" is one region or country with one set of economic conditions (ie bad). I am not an expert on that part of the world but even I know that Africa is a continent and it has lots of different countries with lots of different governments, cultures, and economies. Lumping together Morrocco, Nigeria, and Southern Sudan is ignorant and misguided.
    I agree with the shift away from charity and towards investment, so the more articles on it the better.
    Now, the authors of those articles just need to lose the last vestiges of colonialism/condescencion and differentiate among the countries that make up Africa, the continent.